Kim Yong-sook is fed up and she’s not going to take it anymore.
She’s weary of women between the ages of 30 and 60 being ridiculed as selfish and unstylish — bossy, gossiping magpies with bad perms who pinch pennies and hog seats on the subway.
They’re known as ajumma, a word long applied to married women with children but which in recent years has taken on a pejorative connotation that irks Kim.
Among many South Koreans, it’s now often used to conjure an image of homemakers who disdain full-time jobs to while away afternoons on park benches, in coffee shops and at social clubs, bragging about their children and, if they’ve got the money, go on shopping sprees.
At 58, Kim has empathy for her fellow ajumma, who she insists have too long been misunderstood and ridiculed. Ajumma are not deadbeats, cracks in Korea’s economic engine.
“Actually, we’re running the nation,” says the mother of one, a son. “We’ve got one foot in the house and one foot in society.”
A decade ago, Kim formed a support group called “Ajumma are the Pillars of the Nation.” Since then, she has attracted thousands to her declaration of independence. She’s written a book and consults with business and government.
Her message: Ajumma unite! Don’t take the snickers, behind-the-back finger-pointing and jibes lying down!
Kim figures there are more than 10 million ajumma, married women with children. She sees them not as being forgotten or overlooked women but as a force that can be harnessed to make their own individual statement.
Kim, a petite woman with black swept-back hair, has become a role-model for South Korean mothers in search of a new cultural identity. When she married decades ago, Kim says, wives in the then-more-conservative culture were expected to bear children, cook and keep the house clean, nothing more.
Leave the important work, like earning a living, to us, husbands would say. But Kim was having none of it.
“I gained my financial independence from my husband,” she says. “He didn’t fight me. He knows I’m stubborn. Even if he had demanded that I stay at home, he knew I wouldn’t.”
She worked as a flight attendant and television actress and later started her own clothing manufacturing business. But the business went bankrupt. She was sued for back taxes, and, without money for a lawyer, she says, she was forced to represent herself.
“I was like a child in court. I wasn’t prepared for the challenge,” she recalls. “Half the time I didn’t even understand what the judge was saying to me.”
Despite the disadvantage, she won her case. But another, more personal, verdict hit hard.
“I thought I was successful, but I realized that I just didn’t have the modern social or survival skills to make it in this society.”
Kim saw that the world had changed. Young men no longer wanted their partners to do nothing more than stay home and bear children. Now they expected double incomes to survive the roller-coaster South Korean economy.
Young women might be going to work, but their mothers seemed trapped in another time. Many didn’t even realize that the times had left them so far behind, she says.
Convinced that women of her generation needed a lightning rod, Kim began organizing. For the 2002 World Cup in Seoul, she solicited volunteers to host foreign families without charge, a way for the women to stand up and serve as national ambassadors.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article said the World Cup was in 2004. The correct date is 2002.
She also organized teams to help make garbage a green energy source and started a consulting service for middle-aged women.
Yoo Eun-hee is one of her proteges. The 50-year-old former homemaker watched Kim and asked, why can’t I do that?
Always a good cook, she took her talents out into the job market and was hired as a chef.
“Working with this group gave me confidence,” Yoo says. “It made me see that I could do something for myself. I could see a wider world out there.”
Kim’s mantra is not that every Korean mother and homemaker should go to work to find an identity. She just wants to help women who seek to shake off stereotypes she says are still reinforced both inside the home and out.
Lee Jiwon has also learned from Kim.
“I’m still one of those coffeehouse women,” she says. “But I understand myself better. Meeting with my friends is a way to blow off steam. I live this life because I chose it. It’s not a sentence.”
But Kim knows that some women cling to home and family as a refuge, out of fear, and she says they often become defensive and selfish as a result.
“I think trying to reason with these women would be a waste of words,” she says. “I do it through action, creating jobs, breaking down barriers and providing more channels for their success.”
Yoo also sees the ones left behind. And it makes her sad.
“They’re afraid to take the chance to try to be innovative. Deep down inside, it’s not that they don’t want to get a job, they just don’t know how to go about it.”
Kim knows the biggest obstacle for many ajumma is not their husbands, parents or even their culture, but themselves.
“That’s the lesson we try to teach women,” she says. “You don’t need anyone’s permission to follow your dreams.”
Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.